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By Sameer Lalwani I have three responses to Matt Yglesias’s perplexed questions on the shortfalls of the Afghan National Army (ANA). First, his assumptions overestimate the military effectiveness of the Northern Alliance during the 2001-02 invasion. Second, he underestimates the skill, training, and commitment of the Taliban, both past and present. Third, he doesn’t take ...

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By Sameer Lalwani

I have three responses to Matt Yglesias’s perplexed questions on the shortfalls of the Afghan National Army (ANA). First, his assumptions overestimate the military effectiveness of the Northern Alliance during the 2001-02 invasion. Second, he underestimates the skill, training, and commitment of the Taliban, both past and present. Third, he doesn’t take into account the difficulties of learning the modern system of warfare, let alone modern counterinsurgency.

First off, Afghan indigenous forces were not the formidable fighting force that Yglesias assumes they were in 2001. The alliance of Afghan forces that fought the Taliban alongside the U.S., and later went on to become members of the Afghan National Army, was a mix of battle-hardened Northern Alliance that had endured years of civil war combined with a lesser-trained and inexperienced Eastern Alliance. With substantial U.S. support, the Northern Alliance entered Kabul in November 2001 but did not possess the ability to move on towards Jalalabad, a city in Nangahar province where Taliban and al Qaeda fighters had retreated. It was the Eastern Alliance of Pashtun commanders that was used to pursue the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in the South and East.

Reading through some of the debates between Stephen Biddle, Richard Andres et al, and Peter Krause, it’s clear that the decisive element in the 2001 conflict that tipped the balance of power was American precision airpower that decimated the Taliban positions (though Biddle points out this was not always sufficient). Up to one hundred airstrikes a day were called in by a limited number of US Special Forces on the ground. And when close assaults were needed to accompany airpower, the far superior U.S. Special Forces — not the Northern Alliance — played a critical role in the Battle of Anaconda, the first large-scale conflict after Tora Bora.

This suggests that much of the Northern Alliance was not really tested in force-on-force battles with the Taliban, which had held them at bay for years prior to the injection of American airpower. And since we’re now engaged in a counterinsurgency rather than an invasion, the role of airpower is purposefully being minimized to avoid the civilian casualties that so anger the population.

Meanwhile, Krause’s examination of the battle of Tora Bora — the December 2001 conflict between the coalition and the Taliban, in which Osama bin Laden narrowly escaped death — concludes that the weakest link was the indigenous Afghan forces tasked to advance on al Qaeda positions. He writes, “The Eastern Alliance troops were unable to do much more than occupy territory vacated by al Qaeda troops, and their penchant for returning to dine with their families each night meant territory taken was rarely held.”

Those forces also suffered from tremendous infighting and unreliability. Al Qaeda fighters were thus able to fend off an assault by Eastern Alliance forces before escaping through the mountain passes into Pakistani tribal areas, where they have since reconstituted much of their initial strength.

Second, by contrast, the Northern and Eastern Alliance, the Taliban were skilled ground fighters that had managed to take control of over 90 percent of Afghanistan by the end of 1999. The Taliban and al Qaeda had large cadres of well-trained and committed troops with mastery over the modern system of warfare. According to Biddle, the bulk of the terrorist training camps run by al Qaeda were actually training infantrymen in Western military tactics. They also had far stronger morale than their Northern Alliance brethren, demonstrated by their willingness to engage assault forces even during U.S. airstrikes.

Today’s battle-hardened Afghan Taliban “core” (that number around 8,000 to 10,000 according to counterinsurgency specialist David Kilcullen, a figure likely rising with Taliban gains) are well-trained and committed. Though it may not be welcome news, it seems fair to estimate, for now, that the Taliban’s level of commitment to expel foreign forces from Afghanistan (demonstrated by their acceptance of heavy losses) exceeds the Afghan National Army’s commitment to suppress them, especially when less than half of the reported troop levels of the ANA are still in the ranks and ready for duty.

And though they do not have a superpower advising them, the Taliban have effectively promoted entrepreneurial jihad by disseminating a field manual that has been incredibly effective on both sides of the Afghan border.

Finally, it is also not surprising that the ANA is taking substantial time to grow into an effective fighting force. Simply learning what Biddle calls “the modern system of warfare” — that is, tightly coordinated suppressive fire, dispersion, and small-unit maneuver — is extremely complex and requires a high degree of commitment and skill. Training for counterinsurgency will in some ways be an even more daunting task, as it requires tremendous exposure and vulnerability compared to high-intensity conventional assaults.

Aside from the social and political characteristics that will pose obstacles, Daniel Byman lays out some of the tactical and organizational capacities critical to counterinsurgency that most of our allies in the region lack. Afghanistan specifically suffers from poor integration across units (to ensure communication, territorial coverage, and reinforcement when necessary), poor morale, and bad noncommissioned officers, and it will take some time for the relatively newly composed ANA to develop these capacities.

It also doesn’t help that the ANA is perceived to be dominated and controlled by ethnic Tajik minority, which probably hinders mixed units’ cohesion as well as hampers its operational effectiveness in the southern Pashtun-dominated region.

In a state where there is little history of a professional military possessing a monopoly on legitimate violence, asking the ANA to master conventional warfare and counterinsurgency anytime soon is improbable. Add to this challenge a formidable insurgency — one with some external support but more importantly a large batch of seasoned and committed fighters — and it’s no surprise that this will be a struggle for quite some time.

Sameer Lalwani is a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a research fellow at the New America Foundation.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

Sameer Lalwani (@splalwani) is a senior fellow and the South Asia director at the Stimson Center. He is the editor of Investigating Crises: South Asia’s Lessons, Evolving Dynamics, and Trajectories.

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